Book Expo is a massive event. The floor is crowded with publishers hawking their wares. There’s acres and acres of books. It’s quite an operation really. But whether intentionally or by design, the folks behind the Expo are making it pretty tough to cover this event, especially if you’re a blogger. As Sarah and Ed have mentioned, there is almost no Internet access. Supposedly you can pay $5 an hour for wireless access, or the incredible price of $50 for the day. Everyone is subject to this charge, even those who have press passes. There is a press room (which is where I am right now), but there’s no wireless access there either. Instead there’s three computers with signs posted above them that say “Please limit your time to 15 minutes when others are waiting.” It makes it hard to blog, is all.
1. A Love for Detroit Iron
There may have been better movies at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, but none was timelier than Havana Motor Club. This thrilling and sobering documentary arrives just as President Obama and Raúl Castro are taking steps to close the half-century-old rift between the United states and Cuba, the last dusty relic of the Cold War.
Havana Motor Club, written, directed and produced by Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt, uses the history and current state of car racing in car-crazed Cuba as a lens for examining the island nation’s divided emotions as it gets ready to navigate a treacherous crossroads — the place where communism and capitalism intersect and collide. Through archival footage, we learn that the 1958 Havana Grand Prix attracted ecstatic throngs — only to end in tragedy when a car spun into the crowd, killing 10 and seriously injuring 40. When Fidel Castro and Che Guevara led their triumphant rebels into town the following year, toppling the corrupt American puppet Fulgencio Batista, they promptly outlawed auto racing as “dangerous and elitist.” It was a sign of things to come: communism, Cuban-style, was not going to be a lot of fun.
As it turned out, there was no way Fidel or anyone else could thwart Cubans’ love for cars, especially Detroit iron from the 1950s. Havana Motor Club follows a pack of gear heads as they work on their Chevys and Thunderbirds with minimal tools, improvised parts, and astonishing ingenuity — then race them surreptitiously. The streets of Havana look lovely through the windshield of a speeding ’55 Chevy. All the while, these men struggle to bring back legitimate, sanctioned races.
“The hardest thing about living here,” says Joti, one of the racers, “is that there’s no life for an honest man.” He should know. He sold off his tools and then his car, piece by piece, to finance a string of failed attempts to reach Florida by raft. Eventually he gave up and resigned himself to life in a country where the average wage is $20 a week and just about everything is scarce, from auto parts to gasoline to food.
The recent easing of economic and travel restrictions under Raúl Castro — a sharp break with the rigid anti-American policies of his older brother — has left many Cubans feeling deeply divided. One of the gear heads in the movie notes that he got treated for cancer — for free — even though he has trouble putting food on the table. These men are fiercely proud of the revolution, yet frustrated by the hardships brought on by the U.S. embargo, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the undeniable failings of the revolution itself. They yearn for change but don’t want to abandon life-long beliefs. Havana Motor Club beautifully captures their ambivalence.
2. White Sugar on the Black Market
I share their ambivalence. I also share their love for cars from Detroit, where I grew up during the American auto industry’s golden age, the 1950s and ’60s. For years I dreamed of visiting Cuba, but I wanted to see the place while Fidel was still in power, before it opened its doors to the ghastly glory of American consumer goods. I wanted to see the country before it becomes dotted with Marriotts and McDonald’s, before it becomes another Thailand. (For the same reason, I visited Francisco Franco’s Spain the 1970s, Haiti during Baby Doc Duvalier’s reign in the 1980s, then Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam in the 1990s.) I don’t romanticize dictatorships or totalitarian states, but I do believe that one of the best ways to understand American capitalism is to see how people live — for better and for worse — without our gaggle of consumer goods, our putative freedoms, our unquenchable hunger for the latest new thing.
And so in the spring of 1998 I flew from Miami to Nassau, and from there –illegally — to José Martí Airport in a rattling, smoking, terrifying Air Cubana jet. (The obliging customs agent in Havana neglected to stamp my passport, so I wouldn’t run afoul of American authorities when I returned to Miami.) In my pocket I carried my calling card — a photograph of the lipstick-red and garter belt-black 1954 Buick Special I owned at the time. I had not come for the usual tourist attractions — the cigars, the music, the rum, the architecture, the beaches, the girls. I had come to seek out fellow geeks who love vintage Buicks.
Even back then, Fidel had reluctantly allowed a limited, dollar-based, shadow economy — a necessary response to the hardships brought on by the long-standing U.S. embargo and the recent collapse of the Soviet Union. I took advantage of this legal shadow economy to rent a rooftop room in a private home near downtown Havana, a so-called paladar. These businesses, which often offered home-cooked meals, were among the few places to find edible food. Everything was scarce. Cuba was once the world’s largest exporter of sugar. When I visited, the only place to buy white sugar was on the black market. Cubans laughed darkly at such ironies.
On my first morning, I stepped to the edge of my rooftop terrace and beheld the weird magic of the time warp I had entered. Parked across the street was a faded, mustard-yellow 1959 Cadillac Coup de Ville. Actually the car had been left there to die. The sun roof had stopped working, like so many things in Cuba, and the hole was plugged by a sheet of cardboard. The mammiferous chrome tips of the Dagmar front bumper were speckled with rust. The tires were bald and the back seat was full of soggy junk. The soaring fins and the twin bullet taillights hinted, just barely, that this car represented Detroit at its zenith.
Then it hit me: 1959, the year Detroit pulled out all the stops, was also the year Fidel and Che marched into Havana and banned auto racing and all other vestiges of capitalism. The symbolism and the symmetry went even deeper. That mustard-yellow ’59 Cadillac was not only the same age as Fidel’s socialist dream, it was in roughly the same shape.
This became increasingly apparent as I bicycled around the city, astonished by the sight of so much once-glorious architecture literally crumbling into the streets. Everywhere I went, I struck up conversations with Buick owners. One was Jorge Gallarde, who spotted me admiring his immaculate burgundy ’57 Buick Special parked in a long row of taxis across the street from the National Capitol. After I showed him the snapshot of my ’54 Buick, he started telling me his story.
“I was working as a mechanical engineer in the States in 1960, and I decided to come back home to Cuba,” he said. “I wanted to take part in the revolution.”
In doing so, he was swimming against the current of thousands of other Cubans who were streaming to the U.S. and Europe, an exodus of people, technical expertise and capital from which the country has never fully recovered.
“I bought this Buick shortly after I got back,” Gallarde went on. “It was still fairly new then. I drove it to my wedding. I drove it many times to the beach at Jibacoa, where my family had picnics on the weekends.” He gave the car a dreamy look as he told me about his travels in the Buick and his love for America and things American, a common sentiment in Cuba. I asked him if he had any regrets about coming back home, in light of the way things turned out.
“No,” he said without a pause. “I believed in what Fidel was trying to do. Even if everything didn’t work out, there have been successes — health care and education for all. And remember, he got Batista off our backs.” He paused. “I had a nice career when I got back. I worked for the government and I got to travel a lot — to Europe, the States. It was a good life. Now I’m retired and I drive this taxi to pick up a little extra money.”
When I asked if I could have a look under the hood, he gladly complied. Cubans are justly proud of their mechanical ingenuity. Jorge had installed a diesel engine as a hedge against high gasoline prices.
“Since the fall of the Soviet Union, a lot of guys have switched over to diesels.” Then he shrugged. “Why worry about things you can’t control?”
His fatalism is a very Cuban mechanism for coping. It brings to mind Joti, from Havana Motor Club, whose repeated failures to reach Florida by raft left him resigned to his life in Havana. These men understand that there’s no future in second-guessing history.
A few yards away, a battered Caribbean-blue 1951 Buick Super had paused to catch its breath. The taxi’s owner was leathery, whiskery, with sunglasses perched on his nose and a crumpled fedora on his head. The side-hinged hood was raised, and the owner, Ramon Velasquez, explained that it had overheated and he was letting the engine cool. I showed him the picture of my ’54 Special.
“That’s the thing about these straight-8’s,” he said, “they love to run on the open road, but in the city they tend to overheat. Is your Buick a straight-8?”
“No, it’s a V-8.”
“Ahh, that’s right, they changed over in ’53. Wanted more power.”
Cubans’ familiarity with American cars nearly surpasses their affection for them — and their ability to keep them running. Ramon pointed out the Rambler carburetor he’d installed, plus the clothes pins clamped on the fuel line to absorb heat and prevent vapor lock. There was more than a little duct tape on the porous radiator hoses.
When the engine finally cooled, Ramon closed the hood and fired her up. It sputtered, belched black smoke. This bucket was nearly half a century old, and the only reason it was still running was because it had to. It was Ramon’s livelihood. Watching it melt into the scrum of Havana’s midday traffic, I was thinking that in America that car would have been turned into scrap years ago. So, I asked myself, which country is richer?
3. Life in the Cuba of Tomorrow
Before returning to Miami, I found a street artist near the cathedral whose work I liked — she specialized in painting American cars — and after showing her my snapshot, I commissioned her to paint my Buick parked on the Malecon, Havana’s seaside boulevard.
Oneida Peña’s painting, at the top of this essay, is a glorious bit of kitsch that hangs proudly on my living room wall to this day. Her likeness of the Buick is quite fine, but her pristine pastel buildings along the Malecon are strictly wishful thinking, a dream in living color. The reality looks like this:
I have also seen my nightmare in living color. It’s the painting on the cover of the April 20 issue of The New Yorker, by the great Bruce McCall. Called “Life in the Cuba of Tomorrow,” it shows a pink ’58 Oldsmobile convertible roaring past a billboard trumpeting a new tourist resort: “Bay of Pigs is now PORKY’S COVE.” A cigar-puffing pig with a carbine says, “Vets Welcome!” In the distance lies a new beach resort fed by modern highways. A pair of McDonald’s golden arches glows invitingly. The Oldsmobile has mismatched tires and freckles of rust, and on the roadside there are stands selling cigars and Soviet souvenirs for a dollar. A tow truck owned by Castro Bros. is hauling a dead Lada police car up the hill from the beach. Signs guide motorists to “Lanskyland” and “Animatronic Che” and the “Desi Arnaz Home.”
None of it is in the least far-fetched. It’s inevitable and it will happen soon because American business can’t resist a virgin market like Cuba. Which makes me glad, all over again, that I got to see Havana Motor Club and I got to go to Cuba back in the day, got to bicycle through the streets of Havana and meet people like Jorge Gallarde and Ramon Velasquez and listen to stories about their Buicks. Before long, the Malecon is going to look like it looks in Oneida Peña’s painting — only instead of old Buicks it will be full of shiny new Cadillac Escalades and KFC and McDonald’s restaurants, maybe a Starbucks and an Apple Store. That’s what’s known as progress.
Among the core missions of International PEN is “the defense of writers and of freedom of expression around the world.” In the last two decades, as Salman Rushdie has been both its beneficiary and its champion, this mission has become increasingly visible. However, the artistic defense of freedom of expression is a tricky thing; political self-satisfaction can impinge on the creative writer’s various commitments to silence, cunning, and exile, not to mention irony. There have been events in the past where the celebration of PEN’s core mission has seemed out-of-sync with circumstances. (Should we really be congratulating ourselves for mingling on a cruise ship?) And so, on Thursday night, when I headed to the velvet-draped precincts of Joe’s Pub for “Something to Hide: Writers Against the Surveillance State,” I was a bit nervous. I don’t want to be told what a hero I am for drinking my $7 beer, any more than I want to be told that I can do my part for the Global War on Terror by going shopping.I needn’t have worried (except, perhaps, about my own incipient cynicism). Both in its intelligent planning and in the sensitivity and humility of its participants, “Something to Hide” focused attention on victims of the surveillance state, rather than flattering the good conscience of the audience.The key to the evening’s success, I think, was that writers were asked to read from work other than their own. After quick introductions from PEN president Francine Prose and ACLU director Anthony Romero, a surprise guest took the stage: Wallace Shawn. My pleasure at seeing a favorite writer perform quickly faded into absorption in the performance. Shawn delivered a dramatic reading of Acting U.S. Attorney General James B. Comey’s testimony before Congress, in which White House Council Alberto Gonzalez and Chief of Staff Andrew Card attempt to harass a hospitalized John Ashcroft into signing off on the warrantless wiretapping of American citizens. Shawn is as passionate and idiosyncratic an actor as he is a playwright, and the reading was surprisingly moving. It was a reminder that, despite the excesses of the last eight years, dedicated civil servants still remain the backbone of our government. (Or remained – Comey resigned shortly after the scene at Ashcroft’s bedside.)The evening’s poets, Chenjerai Hove of Zimbabwe and Irakli Kakabadze of Georgia, recited political poems by friends and colleagues, and perhaps because of the translation, the work itself seemed more strident than beautiful. That said, these are two writers who have felt first-hand the corrosive effects of government surveillance, and their introductory remarks provided a much-needed international context for the evening’s theme.Conceptual artists Hasan Elahi and Jenny Marketou explored the dimensions of surveillance at home. Elahi, who spent time on the FBI terrorist watch list, showed slides from a project in which he keeps the FBI constantly updated on his whereabouts. “If they want to know what I’m doing, that’s fine, but they’re going to know everything. If I go to the toilet, they’re going to go with me.” Marketou read an FBI transcript in which two G-men follow Andy Warhol to New Mexico for the shooting of a porn film. They complain about lascivious dancing cowboys and the lack of character development. Thirty-odd years later, audience laughter at Joe’s Pub was both loud and anxious. La plus ça change…The Hungarian Peter Esterhazy reprised Wednesday’s triumphant appearance at Town Hall, here reading from the great Czech novelist Bohumil Hrabal. It’s a testament to Esterhazy’s charisma that his reading, in a language I don’t speak, was more evocative than the reading by his translator that followed. Ingo Schulze of Germany (whose latest novel, New Lives, will be published this fall), read from Through the Looking Glass, making Lewis Carroll sound positively Orwellian.Finally, the evening’s second surprise guest, Deborah Eisenberg wrapped things up with a reading from the Argentine writer Humberto Constantini’s The Long Night of Francisco Sanctis I’ve heard Eisenberg, one of my two or three favorite living American writers, read from her own work before; what was remarkable was the way she inhabited the sentences of another writer. I was half-convinced she’d written the excerpt herself. (I would have the same feeling on Saturday afternoon, hearing her read from Robert Walser’s Jakob von Gunten).Eisenberg and Shawn have for years been vocal critics of the excesses of the American defense establishment; it speaks to the power of their artistry that each is able to write explicitly about political themes without sacrificing aesthetic power. In the end “Something to Hide” served not only as a primer on the iniquity of state-sponsored surveillance, but as a reminder that art and politics need not be mutually exclusive. Indeed, given sufficient humility and tolerance for ambiguity on the part of artists, each can be made to further the interests of the other.
Hemingway put the Parisian bar, Harry’s, on the map. Dylan Thomas did the same for Manhattan’s White Horse tavern. This fall, Victor Giron’s Chicago watering hole, Beauty Bar, might prove just as instrumental to independent literature.
While a staggering number of publishers are closing up shop or announcing mergers, Giron’s press, Curbside Splendor, is growing at a rate many big New York presses would find inspiring, envy-inducing or both. None of it would have been possible without the Beauty Bar. That, and Giron’s bottomless supply of energy.
You get a sense, talking to Victor Giron, that he probably wakes up before you and goes to bed many hours after you. Our interview felt a little like witnessing a plate spinner at the circus. Because, on top of running the Beauty Bar and Curbside Splendor, the optimistic Giron is also a husband, father of two boys, and works a high profile day job as a financial accountant for Jim Beam.
“I tend to pick things up and get really into them,” says Giron, squeezing our weekday afternoon chat between several of his other responsibilities. “If I’m going to do something, I’m not going to do it half-assed.”
Half-assed is probably the last thing observers call Curbside Splendor. Especially after its recent jump in production and profile. Curbside previously released only a handful of books per year, but ramped up the release schedule to a whopping dozen this fall. This shift is a direct result of landing a coveted distribution deal with Consortium Book Sales and Distribution. In this golden age of the indie book publisher (According to Bookstatistics.com there are currently over 60,000 book publishers), it is tough to get noticed amongst the slosh of other presses. So, aside from a political sex scandal involving one of your authors, solid distribution is the most reliable way to compete with the major New York houses.
But should book lovers care about industry talk like distribution? Absolutely. Distribution is the only thing — not the overthrow of Amazon or an e-reader revolution or a self-publishing frenzy — that ensures fresh voices finding readers.
A publisher landing a strong distributor is similar to a rock band selling CDs at concerts and then signing with a prominent indie label like Merge Records. Merge has excellent distribution, which gets its albums in stores and online outlets just as well as majors. But distribution doesn’t guarantee success. It does, however, level the playing field between big labels and indies. Merge is an ideal example. Since starting in 1989, the record company has a massive list of artistic high points, but also numerous business victories. This ability to remain independent, yet place its albums in every conceivable retail outlet has given Merge the strength to release a Billboard #1 album, help its bands like Spoon perform to millions of viewers on Saturday Night Live and watch its most popular act, Arcade Fire, earn the 2011 Album of the Year Grammy.
Similarly, Curbside’s distribution deal is no guarantee of success. But it opens doors to compete on the literary world’s main stage. The evidence is promising — small publishers with Consortium ties have made serious waves, like Akashic Books mega-selling Go the F**K to Sleep and how Two Dollar Radio’s titles frequently earn raves in the New York Times.
Curbside seems poised to make the most of this opportunity. But if it wasn’t for Giron’s bar, none of it would be happening.
Three years ago, when Giron started Curbside Splendor to release his own novel, Sophomoric Philosophy, he had next-to-no literary connections. “It seems kind of backward, I guess. I had no idea people did such things as readings at coffee shops or bars, to tell you the truth, until I was invited myself,” he says. “I began meeting other editors and writers around Chicago by hosting readings at my bar. I really didn’t know anyone until I started reaching out on Facebook and in person, really with the interest of getting people to come to the bar and read.”
Even Curbside’s distribution deal came because of a chance Beauty Bar meeting. “I had been a big fan of James Greer’s novels, The Failure and Artificial Light,” Giron says. “James came through town when his girlfriend’s band played at my bar. We got to talking and he said ‘You know, I’ve never had a story collection published. I don’t think Akashic, his publisher, is interested in a story collection.’ Long story short that’s one of the books (Everything Flows) coming out this fall.”
This relationship with Greer proved invaluable to Curbside’s current growth. “I was kind of honest with James, saying there’s no real distribution for your book. Just so you know. The amount of sales you can expect aren’t going to be much,” says Giron. “And then he suggested we talk to (Publisher) Johnny Temple of Akashic. Originally, Akashic was going to consider sub-distributing James’s book. After our conversation Johnny said we can certainly consider doing this, but it just seems like you have so many great projects that it would be a shame that you not actually try and work with Consortium yourselves. And so he made a personal referral.”
Temple’s enthusiasm for Curbside was a massive boost. Giron had already been rejected by several distributors. Temple, however, saw something most distributors didn’t: “While the mainstream New York-based book industry laments the supposed ‘decline’ of the industry, moping ad nauseum about how no one reads anymore,” says Temple. “This creates opportunities for ambitious and creative companies like Curbside to prove them wrong.”
From the Akashic referral, things moved swiftly last December. “On Friday [Temple and I] were talking and then the next Tuesday I was on the phone with Consortium’s president and then that Thursday they were like, okay, we can sign the contract. And by the way, we need all of your titles for the fall season by next week.”
Where most budding publishers would sprout ulcers at such a radical change, Giron’s energy and optimism took over. “I never really got worried. A big part of my day job is project management, so it comes naturally to me.”
The bulk of Curbide’s fall catalog was born in only a few days’ time. Once again, the Beauty Bar and bottomless energy played a big role. Giron quickly rounded up writers and artists he’d befriended from the bar. “I basically got all my people together and said, okay all these great projects we’ve been kicking around, we need to actually put them together now. So we had to come up with cover mocks, come up with one paragraph summary of titles, author bios, marketing plans. Luckily, we had all these projects but over a long weekend we put together the backbones of the twelve books that are now coming out.
“Some of these titles were pretty much complete, like James Greer’s book, but ranged to flat out ideas like Samantha Irby’s Meaty. We had known Samantha, who is a performer here in Chicago and has a huge following through her blog, Bitches Gotta Eat. We had been loosely talking to her about maybe doing a book together sometime. So, after the meeting with Consortium we were like, Samantha, we really need you to write the book. So then she wrote it.”
Beyond Irby’s collection of humor essays, Curbside’s whirlwind effort since December is just now coming to reality. Giron’s press is offering a diversified lineup this fall, ranging from YA lit Zero Fade, to literary leanings like Greer’s collection and The Desert Places by Robert Kloss and Amber Sparks, to Franki Elliot’s Kiss as Many Women as you Can — a poetry collection in postcard form.
There is, of course, great risk in Curbside’s gamble for real estate on the literary map. Namely, financial risk. Giron has no business partners or investors in Curbside. He personally funded the costly printing, editing, and marketing expenses for every release this fall. “It’s pretty crazy of me. As a rational business person, this is not a good investment/risk to be taking.”
It’s easy to see his energy overshadowing this rationale. “What propels me in this is the idea, the challenge, the belief that there are really great books out there to be made and there is a market of people that are thirsty for innovative, artistically minded, edgy, fresh, spectacular new voices and ideas and beautifully designed books, and so we’re here to try and provide that service.”
Not surprisingly, Temple echoes this sentiment. When asked how he saw Curbside impacting the literary landscape after this Fall’s splashdown, he says Curbside is, “Further proof that books matter, that new audiences are still very hungry for books.”
While it’s still far too early to begin tossing confetti, Giron’s barroom-born gamble seems to be paying off. Irby’s Meaty is garnering a lot of attention, thanks in part to being named part of Barnes and Noble’s Discover Great New Writers series. The book has already sold several thousand more copies than any previous Curbside release. Does that mean Giron will be buying rounds at the Beauty Bar? Probably not. But it might just give this uber-entrepreneur the ability to keep pushing Curbside up through the ranks.
Jonathan Richman, along with his long-time drummer Tommy Larkins, took the stage, strummed his acoustic guitar and began to sing. Nothing. The mikes weren’t working. Where other performers, and indeed lesser legends, might have turned diva, Jonathan simply announced – loudly, to make up for the microphone – that he and the techies would confer for a few minutes, sort out the problem, then the show would go on. Nothing to get uptight about. It was all very casual and friendly.True to his word, he returned to the stage a few minutes later and tried again. Still nothing. And where the diva might have stormed off, Jonathan simply walked to the side, and with clear, unmiked guitar and his best project-to-the-back-of-the-room voice, he began to sing.The audience in the sweltering hall seemed to make the extra effort to keep quiet, almost leaning in so as not to miss anything, and Jonathan responded by singing loud and clear. It was the best “show-must-go-on” moment I’ve ever experienced. Ten minutes later, the mikes began working. For me, the magic of those few unamplified moments set the tone for a glorious evening.This was the second time I’d seen Jonathan Richman over the past decade, and each time it’s like a visit from an old friend, albeit one who plays killer Spanish guitar and seems to have an extraordinary facility with languages. Worldliness aside, his are the most personal of shows, full of joy, optimism, wonder and romance. But also songs of caution, imploring us in his own way not to get too caught up in technology.Early Modern Lovers songs like “Pablo Picasso” take on a new life in this setting, and sit comfortably amid later fare like “In Che Mondo Viviamo”. One minute he’s swiveling and gyrating through “I Was Dancing in the Lesbian Bar”, the next he’s singing songs about cell phones and the demise of human interaction.The truest of troubadours, Jonathan Richman goes from town to town sharing his latest musical offerings, his latest stories, letting us into his world for a couple of hours while he serenades us in the most intimate of settings.
The long and honorable friendship between books and beer was toasted afresh last month when a beer tavern was named after Cormac McCarthy’s sad and funny lowlife novel, Suttree. Book and bar are both located in the city of McCarthy’s boyhood, Knoxville, Tenn.
Suttree’s High Gravity Beer Tavern is owned by the bibliophile husband-wife team of Matt Pacetti and Anne Ford, who have wisely made no attempt to belabor the Suttree connection beyond the name, thus keeping any potential kitsch-making at bay. The tavern is a deep and stylish space with saloon signage, polished wooden floors, an enormous rustic bar cobbled from old floors, and an appealing list of craft beer and wine. The semi-reclusive Cormac McCarthy, who lives in New Mexico, has been told about the new venture and wishes it well.
Suttree follows the story of Cornelius Suttree, a quiet young man who has chosen to renounce his rich, white Roman Catholic background in order to live as a fisherman on the Tennessee River and befriend a fascinating cast of back-alley boulevardiers, each of whom is sketched with tremendous solicitude and humor. Often called “Knoxville’s Dubliners,” Suttree provides an intense, forensic snapshot into Knoxville’s streets and soul. It offers the reader no racy plot or salvific climax, just an uncured slice of life. There are parts of this book that will make you laugh and others that will make your stomach coil in anguish. And while it’s a challenging read, with large slabs of poetic prose and funny words, it also contains the great themes that McCarthy’s more celebrated novels like No Country for Old Men, Blood Meridian, and The Road explore -– faith, violence, old men, death, and individual courage. Sadly, many young Knoxvillians haven’t even heard of the book. Matt has had to fend more than one query on why he’s chosen such an odd name for his bar. But for those who have read and enjoyed it, it’s not hard to see why Suttree has a special place in Knoxville’s heart.
The new bar, in clientele, character, and cuisine (edamame hummus with pita chips), is a far throw from the Huddle, old Sut’s favorite boozer patronized by – prepare yourself for this lovely McCarthyian litany -– “thieves, derelicts, miscreants, pariahs, poltroons, spalpeens, curmudgeons, clotpolls, murderers, gamblers, bawds, whores, trulls, brigands, topers, tosspots, sots and archsots, lobcocks, smellsocks, runagates, rakes, and other assorted and felonious debauchees.” But is not entirely devoid of textual atmosphere. For one, it’s located on Gay Street, a hip downtown thoroughfare that features frequently and significantly in the book, and on which Suttree’s friend J Bone tells him of the death of his son, whom he has abandoned along with his wife, though we are never really told why. In another nice if unintentional touch, one long wall is painted with giant black tree trunks that recall a strange interlude in the novel when a Suttree in spiritual extremis retreats into a “black and bereaved” spruce wilderness and meets, not Satan, but a deer poacher, with whom he has a conversation that is as absurd as it is profound.
Is that a crossbow?
I’ve heard it called that.
How many crosses have you killed with it?
It’s killed more meat than you could bear.
Matt and Anne have also been asked, hopefully, if their menu has a melon cocktail. The disappointing answer is no. Perhaps this is one crowd-pleasing textual connection that might be worth exploring. The melon has an exalted place in the novel because of a ridiculous but tender scene in which a young botanical pervert call Gene Harrogate steals into the fields by nights, shucks off his overalls, and begins to mount melons in the soil. He does this for several nights till the farmer who owns the melon patch shoots him in the backside. Then, mortified at the memory of the thin boy howling in pain, he brings him an ice-cream in hospital. (This tiny but extraordinary act of kindness reminded me of young Pip in Great Expectations bringing the starving Magwitch a pork pie in the marshes.) Gene ends up in the workhouse where he meets Suttree and attaches himself to him. Together, the rat-faced but likeable felon and the ascetic, grey-eyed Suttree make for a comic but charming Felonious Monk pair. Though Suttree was published in 1979, it is set in America’s decade of conformity and suspicion, the 1950s, and one can easily imagine McCarthy gleefully adding the melon-mounting scene to his already gloriously debauched House Un-American Activities Committee.
Over the years, a Suttree subculture of sorts has sprung up in Knoxville among the small but ardent group of McCarthy aficionados. Local poet Jack Rentfro has written a song based on all the dictionary-dependent words in the book (analoid, squaloid, moiled, and so on); University of Tennessee professor Wes Morgan has set up a website, “Searching for Suttree,” with pictures of buildings and places mentioned in the book; in 1985, the local radio station did a reading of the novel in full; and for many years, Jack Neely, local historian and author, conducted The Suttree Stagger, a marathon eight-hour ramble through downtown interspersed with site-appropriate readings from the text. Last year, the independent bookstore Union Ave celebrated McCarthy’s 78th birthday with book readings, chilled beer, and slices of watermelon. During the party, when Neely read out the majestic, incantatory prologue from Suttree, several people in the audience who had shown up with their hardcover first-editions could be heard murmuring whole baroque lines from memory, and more than one pair of eyes misted over at the last line: “Ruder forms survive.”
Cormac McCarthy was not born in Knoxville. Almost 30 years ago he moved to Texas and then to New Mexico. He’s since turned down every request made by the local Knoxville News Sentinel for an interview, though, to everyone’s stupefaction, this epitome of the anti-media whore showed up on Oprah and answered questions like: “Are you passionate about writing?” Despite his reticence, Knoxville stakes first and undisputed claim to this literary giant, and rightly so. Not merely because this is where Charlie (his birth name) went to school (Knoxville Catholic High School, where he met J Long who became J Bone in Suttree); was first published (in the school magazine); was an altar boy; went to the University of Tennessee (which he dropped out of, twice), met the first of his three wives (a poet); lived with the second (a dancer and restaurateur), and overall spent about 40-odd years of his life (longer than Joyce spent in Dublin), but because Knoxville provided the manure from which his celebrated Southern Gothicism sprang. And no novel reaps a richer, more reeking harvest than Suttree. It is, to gingerly forcep a phrase from its fecal innards, “Cloaca Maxima,” often harrowingly so.
Moonshine and maggots are the holding glue in this book that opens with a suicide and ends with Suttree finding a ripe corpse crawling with yellow maggots in his bed, and whose characters consume gallons of cold beer (Suttree’s drink) and vile, home-brewed whiskey that appears to have been “brewed in a toilet.” How terrific that a bar should be called Suttree’s and what a relief they don’t serve splo whiskey. Drunks dominate this story — a hard-bitten, loyal bunch who look out for one another despite being brutalized by poverty and racism. The ties of community are sacred in the South, and it is this fundamental sense of fellowship that binds these losers. McCarthy is an unsentimental writer, but one can detect him getting slightly moist when he describes how this magnificent string of drunks faithfully visits Suttree when he is ill and broken after his forest wanderings, without a single one of them asking “if what he has were catching.”
Although Suttree is soaked in Knoxville noir, McCarthy’s most personal reference to his childhood city occurs not here but in his most recent novel, The Road. In this despairingly beautiful tale, a father and son, stand-ins for Cormac and his young son for whom he wrote the book, make their way through an almost-destroyed world swirling with ash and ruin. The pair fetch up at the father’s old house in a nameless town that is clearly Knoxville. The boy is afraid of this house with its filthy porch and rotting screens, but the father is drawn in by the phantoms of his childhood. They enter. There is an iron cot, the bones of a cat, buckled flooring. As he stands by the mantelpiece, the father’s thumb passes over “the pinholes from tacks that held stockings forty years ago,” and, suddenly, the warm remembrance of Christmases past washes over him, providing an anguished foil to his current state of homelessness. McCarthy may have scant regard for Proust as a novelist but the Proustian pull of a few pinholes is powerfully demonstrated in this passage.
To Knoxville’s great shame, this house burnt down in 2009 (The childhood home of Knoxville’s only other Pulitzer winner, James Agee, has also long been destroyed). “It was very sad,” says Jack Neely, “but there was some poetry to the fact that in the last few years the house was used by the homeless. I think Cormac McCarthy would have liked that.” Cornelius Suttree would certainly have approved.
Photo courtesy of the author.